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DISASTER ASSISTANCE: America Speaks, Grand Forks local listens

Since dealing personally and professionally with the Flood of 1997, social worker Irene Berndt has felt a kinship with people who are living through disasters.

Since dealing personally and professionally with the Flood of 1997, social worker Irene Berndt has felt a kinship with people who are living through disasters.

Berndt went door to door as a mental health worker after the '97 flood, first commuting from Fargo where she was staying with friends while her own home was being repaired and later living out of a temporary trailer.

She also logged time in Manhattan in 2002, facilitating community conversations during the rebuilding process after 9/11.

So, when Berndt went to Baton Rouge in early December to help facilitate a daylong conversation between refugees from Hurricane Katrina, she knew well what to expect.

"You develop a camaraderie that's very unique and very healing," she said. "Like here after the flood, it's important to tell those stories."

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More than 2,500 hurricane victims participated in the conversation, gathering around tables in New Orleans, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, La., Dallas and Houston - the five cities with the greatest number of people displaced by Katrina. Smaller groups joined in from 16 other cities.

The conference was called Community Congress II and was organized by the Washington-based nonprofit organization AmericaSpeaks. Results from the conference were compiled in the Unified New Orleans Plan, a comprehensive list of rebuilding priorities for the city.

Community Congress

The conversation Berndt described facilitating in Baton Rouge was equal parts group therapy session and political caucus. Each facilitator sat at a table with 10 people displaced by the hurricane - or in the case of the New Orleans group, refugees who had returned home.

Each table had a list of issues and possible solutions in which to discuss and vote. If the group didn't like any of the proposed solutions they could create a solution of their own, Berndt said.

A massive screen at the front of the room showed conversations at one of the other four major locations. Votes were sent in from each table electronically and a "theme team" rapidly tabulated the results and sent new ideas from one table back to all the tables for consideration.

But there was more going on than dry debate and voting.

Healing processWhen groups first sat down at their tables, Berndt said, facilitators began the conversation by asking them what they missed most about New Orleans and to recount some of their favorite memories. As the day went on, she said, it was never easy to distinguish opinions about funding and rebuilding from the experiences that informed those opinions.

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"Stories were evoked from the questions," Berndt said, "stories about neighborhoods, the cities within a city. People started talking about the things they missed."

The facilitator's job, she said, was to remain neutral, keep the conversation on track as much as possible and make sure everyone's voice was heard.

If a participant became too emotional, she said, facilitators could call on a mental health worker nearby. If a participant had a question that couldn't be answered at the table, other workers could track down an answer.

"A lot of emotion is what happens and facilitators have to be prepared for that," she said.

A history of helping

In her daily life, Berndt is a mental health social worker for the Northeast Human Service Center, the Grand Forks branch of the state's Department of Human Services. After the Flood of '97, she volunteered with the UND Conflict Resolution Center facilitating community conversations about the rebuilding process in Grand Forks.

In 2002, she was one of three volunteers from the Conflict Resolution Center who went to Manhattan to facilitate discussions on the recovery effort and future plans for the World Trade Center site. That conversation, also organized by AmericaSpeaks, involved about 5,000 New Yorkers and 500 volunteer facilitators.

Unified in struggle

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Each conference participant experienced the hurricane differently and was informed by different experiences before the hurricane.

At Berndt's table there was a cab company owner who drove people out of town as the hurricane approached, but lost all of his cars when the water finally came, she said. He told Berndt he hadn't yet received any insurance money for the cars.

Another woman at the table waited four days in her home without any contact with the outside world, Berndt said, before her son took her out to safety floating on an air mattress.

But unlike the New York conference, where Berndt said there was significant conflict over the future of the World Trade Center site, Katrina refugees were generally unified on the biggest questions.

"They were unified in the sense that something needs to be done faster," Berndt said.

One of the most surprising results of the Community Congress, Berndt said, was the general consensus among participants that job number one should be to rebuild New Orleans safer than it was before. In a list of building priorities, participants gave more votes to rebuilding the city's levees to withstand a category-five hurricane than any other option, including increased spending on benefits like health care and education.

Some participants had returned to New Orleans and were rebuilding their homes. Others had rented or bought homes outside New Orleans. Many were still living in FEMA-sponsored trailer park villages more than 16 months after Katrina, Berndt said.

According to the preliminary report, 70 percent of participants in the congress were either living in New Orleans or hoped to return. Nine of the 10 people at Berndt's table in Baton Rouge agreed they'd like to return to New Orleans.

"One lady said she will return but needs to wait until schools are running with proper staff," Berndt said. "One lady said she wouldn't go back. At the end of the day she was more open, but she wanted to see something happen before going back."

The conference lasted from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Berndt said, with lunch served at the table. At the end of the day, she said, most people felt better for the chance to talk about their experiences."People who left felt very empowered," Berndt said. They felt they'd been heard. People hugged me when they left . . . On so many levels it's very cathartic for the participants and as a facilitator you get a sense of what you can do by just facilitating a dialogue."

Marks reports on higher education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105, (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or jmarks@gfherald.com .

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